The Catholic Position on the Electoral College

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Is there a Catholic position on the Electoral College? Is there a “Catholic algebra” or a “Catholic chemistry”?

Of course, there is not a Catholic algebra or chemistry, but there ought to be Catholic circumstances in which those subjects are taught and learned. There is, then, a Catholic “sense and sensibility” about learning, including the quality of the faculty, respect for truth, fair treatment of everyone in the school, and a climate of learning and serious academic commitment. Such expectations, while not uniquely Catholic, ought to be routinely Catholic.

The Catholic position on the Electoral College—that it must be preserved—derives from respect for subsidiarity (St. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, #48, Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1885) and the traditional Judeo-Christian fear of concentrated political power and rapacious leaders (Psalms 118:8-9, 146:3; Prov. 29:2). To abolish the Electoral College would derogate from federalism, a principle of American politics which must be vigorously upheld, especially in these days of behemothic governmental growth. This political perspective (fearing power and upholding principles which limit such power), while not uniquely Catholic, ought to be routinely Catholic.

II.

 

Without immersing ourselves in the multiple suggestions for reform of the Electoral College—most of them calling for its abolition—we ought to note with grave concern that such political novelties invariably call for, or result in, the diminution, or even the elimination, of federalism. Federalism refers to a system of government in which political powers are legally or constitutionally shared by a national administration and component parts (such as states or provinces).

The concept of the electoral college flows directly from the idea that states are central to our country, which, after all, is the United States of America. One cannot understand the Electoral College unless one comprehends federalism, which is esoteric in that it demands an understanding of layers of government, as opposed to a simpler unitary system, in which all political judgments emanate from one chief source of power, usually residing in the capital city.

Fevered calls to alter or abolish the Electoral College—usually coming from the losing side after an election—rarely, if ever, explore the idea of federalism, intelligent discussion of which cannot be conveniently confined to a slogan or a placard. With an end to the Electoral College, the subversion of federalism will be sure and swift. A concentration of power in Washington, D.C., will be irresistible—wildly applauded by some, greatly feared by others. It may be time to read again Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here about Buzz Windrip’s seizure of power in the United States (after promising each citizen $5,000).

The framers of the American Constitution were, by and large, biblically literate, and the Bible gave rise to their worldview. Therefore, this passage in Jeremiah (17:9) would have helped inform or establish their approach to constitution-building: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt: who can understand it?”

This theme is quintessentially biblical, and allied verses include Genesis 6:5 and 8:21; Psalm 5:9 and 36:1-4; Ecclesiastes 9:3; Mark 7:21-23; John 1:10, 2:25, and 12:43; and Galatians 5:19-21, among many others. To fail to recognize this truth about human nature is not only unbiblical and unhistorical, but it leads to the heresy of Pelagianism, which is, by the way, the foundation of modern liberalism. Political leaders are invariably more or less Herodian, and the consolidation of power is always pernicious and perilous. We might well say that the first political axiom is, as Lord Acton (1834-1902) sought to teach us, that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is true of politicians, of professors, of pundits, of priests—and of prelates.

The argument can be made that Isiah 33:22, which refers to the Lord as judge, ruler, and king, helped to spawn the constitutional idea in 1787—an idea which had also been written about earlier by Montesquieu (1689-1755)—of three branches of government, known as the separation of powers, or separated powers checking and balancing one another. The chief worry, of course, was that tyranny would inevitably result from a single source of governmental power.

Note that political power was constitutionally separated horizontally, among three branches of government, and vertically, between the national government and states. This would be a good time to re-read the language (about reserved powers) of the frequently forgotten Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Not for nothing did the framers see a new country emerging from, but always squarely based upon, the foundation of united states. Whatever detracts from or militates against that principal idea (such as the abolition of the electoral college) must be rejected.

III.

Any political science instruction is morally bankrupt which is devoid of sustained reflection about human nature and agnostic about the existence of the Transcendent and the importance of seeing and judging present perils and possibilities in the light of the eternal. The framers understood this; the forty-four U.S. senators who recently voted for infanticide did not (cf. Rom. 3:10-18). Ten of those senators preposterously self-identify as Catholic.

Consider, for example, this comment by the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison: “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this:  you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself” (Federalist #51).

We begin to see Catholic sense and sensibility arising. When there are steps toward abolishing protections against massive national power, the Catholic mind must resist. Obsta principiis: stop the encroachments as early as practicable. It’s late for us to prevent the metastasis of the national government—perhaps too late. This does not release us, however, from the duty of trying to recover the subsidiarity axiom proclaimed by Pope Pius XI but neglected, or never learned, by so many soi-disant Catholic politicians today: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (Quadragesimo Anno, #79).

There is a reason, after all, that the First Commandment is first. When we begin to replace God with the idol of the Leviathan (as in Job, chapters 3, 40, and 41; Psalms 74:14 and 104:26; and Amos 9:3), we commit the grievous sin of worshipping false, fraudulent gods. Thus did Pope Pius XI warn us in 1931: “If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (Quadragesimo Anno, #120).

Increasingly, it seems, the leviathan of a huge national government is seen as the definer and dispenser of all that is good, true, and beautiful. With that view, anything that interferes with consolidated national power must be destroyed. The Electoral College obstructed Hillary Clinton’s narcissistic climb to absolute power; therefore, it must pay the ultimate price—death by constitutional amendment.

Soon, the judicial structure will most likely follow. Then the federal system, which interferes with the consolidation of power. Then the axiom of separation of powers, which will be lampooned as archaic. We will have precisely the national false idol against which the Bible, Pope Pius, and so many others have warned us. Even—we might say—Richard Harris, singing MacArthur Park:

Someone left the cake out in the rain/
I don’t think that I can take it/
‘Cause it took so long to bake it/
And I’ll never have that recipe again.

The “cake” here, if I may interject it, is the idea of a vertically and horizontally limited national government. When we lose that “recipe” (as, surely, we are losing it incrementally), we’ll “never have [it] again.”

IV.

It is time to re-read the Catechism, which summarizes canon law 747 by pointing out that the Church has the duty of announcing moral principles, “including those pertaining to the social order,” when necessary. Such an enduring Catholic moral principle is that Caesar is not the Lord (#2032, #450). Having announced this principle, the Church then prays that its sons and daughters have the wit and wisdom to apply it to discrete personalities in the voting booth and to discrete cases and causes in the public square.

There are, indeed, many compelling political and constitutional reasons to preserve the Electoral College in the United States of America. But there is, as well, an overarching Catholic reason to preserve the electoral college. Those principles and policies which preserve the vertical distribution of political might between the leviathan of the national government and the increasingly weakened powers of states (despite the Tenth Amendment) must be shepherded and preserved, lest they be eroded by the concomitant and malevolent accretion of political power. This is Catholic wisdom.

There is, after all, no limit to “progress.” Why not revolutionarily award New York City, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, or Houston their own senators? State colleges could be nationalized and charge nothing for tuition. National voting rights could permit 16-year-olds to vote. “Washingtonia” (the new name for the USA) could provide monthly income and free medical insurance for all of us (for a very short while—until the money runs out). The notion of “citizen” has changed, and it will change much more as we begin to see ourselves as national citizens first, last, and exclusively (no more wondering about the proper name for a citizen of Connecticut). Evidence of this trend is the state adoption—encouraged by federal subsidies at a time of financial crisis—of the wretched Common Core national standards of education which largely replaced state or local standards.

And, finally, instead of saying, “Hail, Mary,” we will be called upon to say, “Hail, Caesar.”

The great English writer and Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) once wrote that “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fads.” We are today inundated by political fads which, given sound Catholic education (please God), we ought to be able to recognize, refute, and resist. Among them is the siren song to modify or abolish the Electoral College.

Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, wrote that “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” Certainly, we can debate what light and transient mean. But let’s have the prudence—a cardinal virtue—not to embrace with enthusiasm something that may be only a fad and fallacy, abjuring the admonitions of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Madison, and Pius XI among many others: beware of giving anyone, or any one branch of government (or, in fact, any other institution), too much power—step by perilous step. Every system will be broken—every system and every person (Rom. 3:23)—until the Parousia.

Editor’s note: Pictured above, protestors demonstrate against President-elect Donald Trump outside Independence Hall, November 13, 2016, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Republican candidate lost the popular vote by more than a million votes, but won the Electoral College. (Photo credit: Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Deacon James H. Toner

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Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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